Across Florida, tens of thousands of workers labor under uncertain conditions, paid far less than a living wage (and vulnerable for wage theft) and lacking critical protections like health insurance.
It says a lot about the status of work in the Sunshine State that the above paragraph could apply to several sectors of its labor force.
But a recent report from the Florida Policy Institute focuses on domestic workers — the 112,000-plus people who mind children, clean bathrooms and kitchens, care for elderly and disabled people and accomplish myriad other tasks needed to keep homes operational for the families who employ them.
They are a vast and vulnerable army, lacking any real weapons to use in self-defense besides their own willingness to work hard. Many of them are being taken advantage of, sometimes under conditions that approach — or even meet — the definition of abuse. And because they are largely invisible, little attention is paid to their plight.
A few states, however, are working to change that. There's a compelling argument for Florida to join them.
The ranks of the vulnerable
The report, prepared by FPI with help from the Miami Workers Center, includes a statistical snapshot of domestic workers across Florida drawn primarily from the U.S. Census. It shows clear trends. Three-fifths are immigrants (more than double the proportion of immigrants in the state's overall labor force) and one-third of those immigrants are undocumented, putting them at significantly higher risk of abuse. Three-quarters of them are Black or of Latin American descent. And 95% of them are women.
As a group, they are significantly underpaid. By FPI's calculation, "the median hourly pay for domestic workers in Florida is $11.85. By comparison, the rest of Florida's workforce earns a median wage of $19.13, which is 47% more than domestic workers."
It's important to remember that these figures represent the workers who can be found. The last Census saw significant undercounts among the same demographic groups that dominate this segment of the workforce. And some working under the table might not have been honest about their source of income, particularly those hired through private referrals, social-media platforms or other un-trackable means and paid under the table — or trafficked into this state to work in conditions of virtual slavery.
Even so, the breakdown reveals a population that lacks any significant protection: They aren't covered by workplace safety rules or fair-wage laws, no government entity is looking out for their interests and they lack the ability to join forces and collectively bargain for better conditions, pay and safeguards against exploitation.
Ten states (Connecticut, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Virginia) have already passed legislation protecting these vulnerable groups. Florida should do the same.
A place to start
FPI's proposed solution: A domestic workers' bill of rights, which would explicitly cover them with protections that already protect the vast majority of the American labor force. The list of proposed elements includes the right to minimum wage and overtime pay; eligibility for paid leave; laws that prevent employers from seizing personal documents (including passports and other immigration paperwork) and other invasive means of putting workers at a disadvantage; and finally, the right to collective bargaining.
FPI believes — and we agree — that any protections should be given to all workers, regardless of their immigration status, and allow them to ask for help without risking deportation. Otherwise, the new laws will only drive the plight of undocumented workers even further into the shadows. This element will be a tough sell: Lawmakers love to rant about "illegals" invading Florida, while refusing to curtail businesses who employ them and profit from their labor.
FPI's Alexis P. Tsoukalas, chief author of this report, acknowledges that this is a vast and thorny issue. But FPI's proposal might be the best way to give domestic workers visibility, respect and strength they currently lack. That, in turn, could encourage more Florida workers to enter the domestic-services workforce, giving overstressed families better options as they choose the people who will help their children study, soothe the confused anxiety of their parents suffering from dementia and keep their homes clean and welcoming.
What are the chances of getting something like this through Florida's super-majority Republican Legislature? To be honest: Slim. But if lawmakers want to prove to their constituents that they aren't merely slaves themselves, bound only to corporate interests and political whims, they would send a powerful message by taking a stand in defense of this vast and vulnerable population — the meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness but have little chance of obtaining it on their own.